Early in the fourth quarter of game seven against the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday night, your Denver Nuggets held a four point lead over a team with two Hall of Famers on it. That moment showed the peak of the Nuggets' season and potential. The Lakers went on to win the game and thus, the series. The first-round playoff loss was almost exactly what most expected from the Nuggets season, yet the team provided reason for tempered excitement about the future.
Before the season we talked about how the bevy of young, fast legs on the Nuggets and the extremely condensed schedule could set the team up for a great regular season. The Nuggets actually fell victim to the schedule rather than capitalizing on it. Only Andre Miller played all 66 games this season. Two starters, Danilo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov, played 43 and 44 games, respectively. Many other contributors missed time and just when Wilson Chandler returned from China and signed a long-term deal with the team, he was lost for the season after playing only eight games.
The altitude didn't work in the Nuggets favor the way many thought it would, as Denver posted a 20-13 record a mile above sea level, worst of any Western Conference playoff team. The Nuggets also pulled off a deadline trade that no one expected by sending Nene to Washington for JaVale McGee. While McGee shows plenty of promise and entertainment value, the trade was one for future seasons that made the Nuggets slightly weaker this year.
With all the injuries, trades and an evolving roster, head coach George Karl used just under 521,000 different starting lineups during the regular season. The Nuggets gave a valiant effort against the Lakers, twice fending off elimination, but as it usually does in the NBA, talent won out.
In game seven, the Lakers' twin towers, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, planted themselves in the post and shot down every effort by the Nuggets like two snipers in a tower. Gasol, in particular, had an otherworldly performance with 23 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists and four blocks, more than making up for his complete no-show in Game 6.
The Nuggets made their third-quarter run by playing small, forcing turnovers and getting out in transition, which is not a recipe for sustained success in the playoffs. And that brings us to the future of the Nuggets.
Saturday's game against the Lakers was a microcosm of the dilemma the Nuggets face. They had a small burst of success when forcing turnovers, running the fast break and not relying on any one star. Karl loves this in theory, and it can be tremendously fun -- but the Lakers sealed the game when their uber-talented stars took over. Kobe Bryant's defense slowed Ty Lawson, while Gasol and Bynum controlled the boards at both ends and made key buckets.
There is little to no history of running teams that play mediocre D -- Denver ranked 19th in the league in defensive efficiency -- winning NBA titles. And in a game with only five players on the court at a time, elite talent matters more than in any other sport.
The Nuggets have a deep cache of talent and serviceable rotation players but are very shallow on game-changing talent -- one or two players who would have taken control of Saturday's game with five minutes left. While the Nuggets have a young roster with few players who have reached their ceiling, how high are the ceilings of any of the Nuggets?
Page down to keep reading our look at the future of the Denver Nuggets. Lawson and Gallinari are the top candidates to become stars on some level, but are either good enough to be the best player on a championship team? Doubtful. Both still have plenty of time to improve -- Lawson is 24 and Gallinari is 23.
With a pretty optimistic view, Lawson could become this year's version of Tony Parker. Parker and Lawson are both lightning-quick point guards and an examination of the numbers show they are remarkably similar. They have the exact same assist rate and Lawson actually shoots better and rebounds at a higher rate. Parker has the ball in his hands a lot more, runs the offense and is much more adept at scoring in the half-court offense, which will always be a challenge for the 5-foot-10-inch Lawson.
His speed is game-altering and the way he came out and took charge in game six by burying his first four three-pointers showed he is unafraid of the big moments. He needs to work on the same things almost all young guards do -- decreasing turnovers and increasing floor command -- but he's surely the most promising young star on the roster.
The Denver Post is reporting Lawson is hoping to work on a contract extension during the summer. Despite an up-and-down series against the Lakers, he averaged nineteen points and six assists per game while shooting 51 percent from the field.
Gallinari's skills are apparent, and despite a bad series against the Lakers in which he shot 36 percent from the field and a measly 17 percent from the three-point line, he seems to be a big part of Denver's future. The Nuggets signed him to a four-year extension this season that makes him the highest paid player on the team.
But the big Italian simply needs to affect the game in more ways than scoring. At six-foot-ten-inches, he needs to grab more than his career average of 4.5 rebounds per game and he's shot 41 percent from the field for the past three seasons. For Gallo, the recipe is fewer mid-range jumpers and more drives to the basket.
Rookie Kenneth Faried also represents a lot of promise. He's seventh in the league in rebounding rate and averaged a double-double in his first playoff series. He scored the first two buckets for the Nuggets in game seven on real post moves and showed almost no signs of rookie jitters on the big stage. There's also this.
The next wild card is McGee. He's almost as likely to dunk in the opponent's basket as he is to pull off any kind of legitimate post move, so trying to guess his future is futile at best. Nuggets management has said it wants to sign him long-term. McGee is a restricted free agent this summer, meaning the Nuggets can match any offer another team gives him. Given the dearth of quality big men in the league and McGee's tantalizing athleticism, a team offering him $10 million a year is not off the table.
As for other loose ends, Andre Miller is an unrestricted free agent and has said he either wants to start somewhere or play for a title-contender. Miller is probably smart enough to realize he will be close to retirement by the time Denver is able to contend for a championship.
The Nuggets have just over $50 million committed for next season and the salary cap is likely to rise from this season's $58 million. That space could quickly be eaten up if the Nuggets sign McGee, who spoke glowingly about the organization and his time in Denver.
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The Nuggets will also get Chandler back next year to add to its collection of swing-men. But much of this is shuffling of pieces on a team that will likely make the playoffs but is not capable of advancing past the first round.
For the Nuggets to get to the next level, several players need to make a leap in production or General Manager Masai Ujiri must package several of his pieces for a proven difference-maker. That is, unless they are intent on bucking traditional NBA wisdom and winning a title with a slew of good but not great players.
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